Spring training is not all suntans and wind sprints. During the rites that begin in earnest this week, players will work not only on conditioning but also on their skills. They will take refresher courses in the basic arts of hitting, pitching and fielding, and under the tutelage of coaches and special instructors—one of whom will be Sandy Koufax, who is coming out of seclusion to polish Dodger pitchers—they will brush up on the game's nuances, those little plays without which the majors wouldn't be big league at all.
Shoeless Joe presumably would have loved this Pirate drill. With a coach posing as a second baseman, players in old uniforms—so what if they get torn—and no spikes practice busting up double plays.
Spring showers used to mean a day off. No more, now that there are indoor hitting facilities such as the ones the Cardinals use. Inside, a pitcher can throw his worst delivery to the best of his team's batters and still be absolutely sure that it won't be hit out.
When Joe Torre, the manager of the Mets, noticed a few of his shortstops and second basemen flopping when it came to flipping the ball while working on 4-6-3 double plays last spring, he described the perfect throw for them: "It's a short, firm toss. Use touch."
A Philadelphia first baseman indulges in a preseason luxury—waiting for the pitcher to settle in at the bag before making the toss—during a drill on 3-1 ground outs. Such leisureliness is permissible only in springtime, when no runner is sprinting toward the base.
Spring training is a screening process in more ways than one. As the manager tries to separate the phenoms from the phonies, wire mesh is everywhere, separating batting-practice pitchers—human and mechanical—and fielders from the sharp sting of line drives.
Catchers also undergo a screening, and it often can be painful. When the coach pulls the trigger of this compressed air-powered baseball mortar, it will, if properly aimed, lob fouls back to within inches of the screen protecting the home plate box seats. Ouch!
Even though the flat truth is that live pitching is without equal when it comes to helping a hitter sharpen his eye and quicken his stroke after a winter of inactivity, this simple device frequently suits a batsman to a T, especially if he is only aiming to level out his swing.